MITROVICA, Kosovo (AP) — Nobody questions Vladimir Putin here.
Images of the Russian prime minister are plastered all over the walls in Serb-run northern Kosovo as Russian flags flutter in the wind. Tens of thousands of Serbs in the region have recently sought Russian citizenship.
Banners reading "Russia Help!" or displaying Putin's portrait with the message "He's Watching After You" hang across the streets of Mitrovica, the divided northern Kosovo town that has been the center of recent tensions between Serbs and majority Albanians.
Moscow has become the champion of the Serb defiance against Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia. The local Serbs are frustrated by Belgrade's refusal to use force to save them from ethnic Albanian rule.
The Kosovo Serbs have been desperately courting Moscow to press their sense of abandonment over Belgrade's enthusiastic pursuit of European Union membership, which could lead to Serbia dropping its designs on a territory it considers its spiritual homeland.
"These traitors in Belgrade will trade us for EU membership," said Milorad Jovanovic, a Serb from Mitrovica. "Only Putin and mother Russia and can save us from extermination."
Serbs have a historic affinity with Russia because of common Slavic roots and the Christian Orthodox religion. But their relations have gone up and down; former Russian President Boris Yeltsin tacitly supported NATO's 1999 air war against Serbia that stopped its government crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists.
Beyond handouts and diplomatic opposition to Kosovo statehood at the United Nations, Moscow's interest in the Kosovo Serbs is at best marginal.
Moscow recently rejected some 22,000 Kosovo Serb applications for Russian citizenship, citing its strict citizenship laws.
Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said that it was obvious from the citizenship requests that "the people are in a difficult situation and feel hopeless."
But the Kremlin has offered only humanitarian aid. On Tuesday, some 25 trucks were bringing aid to the Kosovo Serbs, and even that symbolic mission failed to progress swiftly.
By afternoon, only two trucks carrying food, blankets and tents passed through a NATO checkpoint manned by American peacekeepers at a border point with Serbia.
Earlier, a convoy of EU police dispatched to provide security for the incoming trucks was turned back by the Serbs who are blocking roads and refusing passage for members of the 3,000-strong EU rule of law mission.
Russia's ambassador to Serbia, Aleksandr Konuzin, was escorting the Russian aid convoy Tuesday. He hugged Serbs manning the barricades in apparent support of their continued defiance. Associated Press video showed Konuzin meeting Krstimir Pantic, a Kosovo Serb leader, close to the border crossing.
The Russian diplomat blamed EULEX for blocking the convoy and setting conditions for entry through a different crossing point, Merdare, where Kosovo customs are stationed.
"We will not go through Merdare because the controls there are done by Pristina authorities and they are not considered as legitimate by Russia and Serbia," Serbia's official Tanjug news agency quoted Konuzin as saying.
For months, Serbs have dumped rocks and soil on roads coming from the ethnic Albanian dominated south to block Kosovo authorities from stamping their authority over the defiant northern strip bordering Serbia.
Tensions rose this summer after Pristina's botched attempt to send customs officials into the Serb area. Since then Serb protesters have clashed with NATO peacekeepers and EU police, both seen by many Serbs as supporters of Kosovo's statehood.
Dozens of NATO soldiers from Germany and Austria were injured in a clash early this month, some by small arms fire, and scores of Serb protesters were hit by rubber bullets and tear gas canisters.
The violence prompted Germany to block Serbia's bid for EU candidate status last week. Approval for Serbia's candidacy was deferred until March 2012, conditional on Serbia persuading Kosovo Serbs to remove their roadblocks.
Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade.